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These Many Paths Come Together in One Vision for America

While the paradigm of separating our work from our personal interests is prevalent, I still believe many of us would like to live a more integral and holistic life where our work and interests are complementary. Here's how I 've tried to do that.

For my primary work, I am the managing editor of Catholic World Report. After writing a few years for Trenton Monitor,, and Ascension, and after working sporadically on my own publication---Rambling Spirit---this is where my passion for writing has lead me, and it's a good job.

With that said, it's not enough. Writers share interesting news and ideas, but it's all just talk if we don't find ways to implement the ideas into our society and culture. That conviction is what led me to the real estate sector. I'm not saying all writers are just idealists. Many of them have their own ways of embodying the ideas they write about through other endeavors. Real estate is my way of embodying my vision for a better America.

Reason 1: The Offer

I chose real estate to embody my vision for two reasons. First, in my teens and twenties, I worked for my father's general contracting and property management businesses in my home state of New Jersey. The work was gritty, fulfilling, and concrete (sometimes literally). We built the banquet hall at the Cranbury Inn, a strip mall in West Orange, we renovated the promenade at Riva Pointe in Weehawkin, and we built our farmhouse in Upper Freehold, among other projects. In Jersey City, we helped revitalize Journal Square, turned an abandoned lot into a landscape garden, and built a few townhouses on Grace Street. I believe digging in the New Jersey dirt so much is what made me come to love the land that raised me.

When the Great Recession hit around 2008, construction work became harder to come by and my dad's business declined. He became sick and died in 2011 at age 63. One day, a few years before he left us, he offered his property management business to my older brother and the construction business to me. My brother accepted the challenge. I didn't.

My dad knew how, as a child, I loved to build things and had an idiosyncratic passion for building cities in games like SimCity. He even got me huge sheets of drafting paper so I could draw my concepts of planned towns on them. He encouraged me to become an architect, and to this day I still am sort of an architecture enthusiast.

Despite all that, at the time I was fixed upon becoming a published writer, and no other path was going to intrigue me as much. I was idealistic. How youth is wasted on the young! I now notice the practicality behind my dad's offer. He gave me so much. To carry on a legacy he built that was conducive to my own dreams was more of a gift than a request.

Reason 2: The Community Planning Crisis

That's my first reason for entering real estate: to win back the promising offer my dad gave to me. My plan was to build a team of subcontractors and find work for them by buying real estate we could rehab and flip.

However, my 15 years in the publishing business have taught me that it's not enough to just build stuff. It is vital that we build right. Ideas influence the way we build, so in order to inspire better architecture I need to help people see that building better architecture is worth their while. I write this post and others like it with that goal in mind. For the most part, America has been building wrong for generations. I don't mean our buildings lack structural integrity, but they do convey how visually illiterate we are these days. There is a language to built environments, and the way we are writing ours resembles the comment section of an unmoderated social media page.

Here's where I ran into a snag in my attempt to realize my vision. At the same time though, it leads me to the second reason I dove into real estate. The real estate business isn't really focused on real estate. It focuses on buying and selling, and the product just happens to be real estate. It's a shame that I had to pay investors and Realtors thousands of dollars to learn that reality. In our capitalist society, I suppose everything boils down to a marketing campaign. I learned that the hard way in the publishing business too, and it even cost me a job or two because I hated the fact that everything comes down to money in our society. As I tried to explain how I believed my mission was about more than making money, how I believed we were in a unique position to propose a bolder vision for society, I just left my managers frustrated as they told me in a million different ways, "That's just not how the world works."

I can spend thousands of words explaining how investors and agents have taught me conflicting philosophies, leading me to conclude that I just have to find my own way. Let me sum it all up by saying I don't have my own interests in mind, and I don't have clients' interests in mind either. I have the local community's interests in mind.

There are universal ideas about how to build communities that everyone likes. Beauty is too big to fit in the eye of the beholder. We all know what it looks like, how it envelopes us and how we need it. The responsibility of real estate professionals goes beyond the transactional. We have the resources and the networks to promote the prevalence of more beautiful places. We can work with planning boards, zoning boards, architects, developers, engineers, general contractors, municipal councils, and local business owners to promote smarter development.

A New Strategy

Forgive me for the leap I'm about to make now. I want to raise awareness for the abandoned properties we drive past every day, because I think they present a very big opportunity to implement these ideas I'm sharing, to rethink the space they sit on, to reimagine real estate. So, I drive around my area looking for and familiarizing myself with these otherwise forgotten lots.

This is a popular real estate investor strategy called "driving for dollars", which is when the investor just drives around an area looking for distressed properties, looks up the owner, contacts them, and works with them to get the property rehabbed. That part of what I'm doing is nothing new. But I am introducing a new layer to this strategy. As I drive around, I am also using a handful of driving gig apps: Doordash, Roadie, Lyft, Uber, and Grubhub (DR LUG for short). This allows me to drive for dollars while actually making money. Providing rides and doing deliveries for people already helps me become more familiar with the area, so I figured 'Why not put that familiarity to use by keeping a record of the distressed properties I find on my route?' and make it a bit more lucrative. I may not do everything I do for money, but I also understand I need some extra income to keep my real estate endeavors afloat. Starting a real estate business is expensive, as anyone in the industry can tell you.

Different Kinds of Success

The helpful mentors who have taught me a great deal in real estate are probably wondering why I haven't seen any success yet. To them it probably seems like I'm just not doing the work necessary to succeed in real estate. If I were in the game to make a lot of money, I would have to agree with them. Some say I have to "burn the boats" Hernán Cortés style, which for me could mean quitting my editing job---which is my main source of income. I accepted that thought for a while, but after further reflection I noticed I already burned the boats, and some bridges along the way. Granted, in my case it was all more accidental than when Cortés did it, but I know what it's like to see everything that brought me comfort turn to ashes. I'll spare you the details.

After about two years of learning the business, becoming a real estate agent, establishing Rebuilders Property Solutions, LLC and the Zombie Properties YouTube channel, I still haven't made a dime in real estate. But the more I work at it the more concrete my vision becomes. As it becomes more and more real to me, I hope it does for you too. Maybe you have similar aspirations as I do, to live in a more human environment that fosters stronger communities. I will continue to share my thoughts on how we can do that, and I believe the real estate business can play a part in it all.

"To laugh often and much: To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Featured image generated by Midjourney


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